Every commander preaches the importance of knowing your enemy. Studying your foe is sound strategy, especially in video games—know more about the green-blooded freak you’re fighting and you’ll find better ways to pulverize him with carpet bombs. But leaping into the skin of the people (or aliens) you’re pummeling can also change your worldview. What if, after you join their side, the enemy no longer seems so awful?
You wouldn’t expect such moral questions to come out of Halo 2, the much-anticipated, Xbox-only sequel to 2001’s superb first-person shooter. (The Xbox is made by Slate’s corporate parent, Microsoft.) When the game begins, you’re playing the same “good” guy from the original Halo, a super-enhanced human charged with laying a world of pain on an alien army called the Covenant. As in the first Halo, the game play in Halo 2 is remarkably open-ended. You can skulk around a battle or charge right in with your Jeep-mounted Gauss cannon—the artificial intelligence is so good that every time you play, something incredibly different will happen.
While Halo 2 often plays like a bigger, badder version of its predecessor, there is an unexpected new twist about two hours into the game. Look down and—whoa!—you’ve got an alien claw instead of a hand. By your side are the lizardlike dudes you were just shelling. For the rest of the game, you flip back and forth between playing as a human and a Covenant alien. As the human, you’re trying to keep the aliens from conquering Earth; as the “bad guy,” your job is to quell a conspiracy amongst your fellow aliens.
The upshot is that Halo 2 is both a superb game and a nuanced political experience. Critics have universally fawned over the game’s technological wizardry—the superrealistic physics, pimptastic weapons, and hijackable vehicles. But it’s the shifting point of view that transforms an otherwise normal shoot-’em-up game into a winding tale that grays the black-and-white universe of combat.
In the first Halo, the aliens were a shadowy, militaristic menace driven by religious zeal. In Halo 2, they’re still pretty much that way—unfortunately, you never get to go all the way to the dark side and fight humans. Nonetheless, you do get inside the aliens’ heads. After talking to the Covenant’s spiritual leaders and learning about their motives, they still seem pretty loopy, but it’s harder to think of them as just faceless monsters.
This inverted perspective extends, brilliantly, to the manual that comes along with the game’s “Limited Collector’s Edition.” While the game’s plain-jane $45 version comes with a guide written from the human perspective, the bulked-up $55 edition (it also comes with a DVD) has the exact same handbook written from the alien perspective. Both books cover the same material—the weapons, the combatants, the Byzantine back story—but with hilariously different interpretations. The human guide calls the littlest aliens “Grunts” and says that “they will often panic when faced with superior forces.” The alien guide calls them by their actual name, Unggoy, and purrs that they “will as ever fight well with their comrades.” More pointedly yet, the aliens refer to their defeat in the first game as “The Atrocity at Halo.” Who wrote this thing, Noam Chomsky?
Of course, you could argue just as easily that Paul Wolfowitz wrote the humans’ guide. The narrative seems awfully familiar: a “good” force, convinced of its moral superiority, hacking through a faceless, undeterred horde that’s driven by religious fervor. Ahem. Halo 2’s designers have denied that their game was at all inspired by the Iraq war or that they’re taking any partisan stance. I think they’re telling the truth. Though some of the early locales do look, creepily, like burned-out Middle Eastern cities, it’s hard to argue that a game that makes killing so much fun is antiwar. The game’s storyline owes as much to the florid style of Star Wars as it does to the florid style of modern geopolitics. And, as I’ve written before, the concept of seeing yourself through the eyes of a foe isn’t an entirely new one in video games.
No, the ideological payload here comes merely from the act of flipping sides in medias res. In jumping across the foxhole, you’re forced to acknowledge that your enemy has its own subjective, if flawed, reasons for fighting, that maybe they’re something more than a cardboard cutout you use for target practice. Warfare causes every nation to glorify itself and demonize its foe beyond all recognition. Video games that dabble in sci-fi warfare have always camped this up, beginning the battle with some obtuse, fanboy explanation for all the bloodshed—a jingoistic, purple-prose excuse for Why We Fight that invariably stretches back thousands of years and involves various races and unsettled grievances. With Halo 2, the designers use that convention straightforwardly, but tweak it enough to make you think.
When you played the first Halo, every time you shot at the little Unggoy aliens, they’d run away cussing you out. Their jabbering language was so close to normal English that you’d always feel on the verge of understanding what they were saying. With Halo 2, now we know.